Could an 'economic revolution' be coming to La Junta? Urban renewal director says yes
La Junta Urban Renewal Director Cynthia Nieb delivered a detailed presentation to city council members Monday about activities the board has been involved with and its goals for the near and distant future.
Prosperity and growth are the overarching objectives with changes like downtown development, improved city parks and amenities and more abundant and varied job opportunity both for prospective residents and people who already call La Junta home.
Nieb began by recapping city projects that are already under development and how those are impacting the city.
Current La Junta renewal projects
Livewell Park on the corner of Third Street and Santa Fe Avenue and the parking lot two doors down are two projects being done by the city, along with the restoration of bathrooms at La Junta City Park and future development of other parks and trails.
Nieb revisited the fact that La Junta was awarded the title of Colorado Main Street of the Year after the city was selected by other cities and towns that participate in the Main Street Program, a national program dedicated to the revitalization of municipalities and their communities.
Back in November:La Junta named Colorado Main Street of the Year
She also spoke of the Presbyterian Church at the corner of Third and Santa Fe that the city recently purchased and the opportunities it presents.
"This beautiful 1906 church is the cornerstone of our community and has potential to be a money-maker," Nieb said. "Main Street has already funded visioning sessions for future uses and will be working with city planner Ben Levander on other use options per our Main Street annual plan, and apply for an El Pomar (Foundation) grant to physically assess the building and create design documents."
The placement of Livewell Park across the street from the church, which Mayor Jeffri Pruyn has previously said could become an events center or something similar, plays into the city's plans of fostering a bustling downtown.
Wedding ceremonies could be held at the church, for example, and then photos could be taken across the street at Livewell Park.
On Livewell Park, Nieb said the project had been on the books for a few years, but development didn't kick off until the city received a Revitalizing Main Street grant of more than $49,000 from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Creating jobs for present and future La Junta residents
The key concern that Nieb has heard from La Junta residents is the lack of accessible jobs in the city.
Nieb listed housing, entrepreneurship, trades and growth as vital factors that contribute to stimulating job growth and to creating new jobs that people are interested in working.
"This is just a general outline, but I've heard from half the free world that they really want trades training here in La Junta," Nieb said. "I have connections to a lot of people who are in, shall we say, historic preservation training that have always wanted to work on something like this. I also have talked to (East Otero School District Superintendent) Rick Lovato, he's interested, the maker spaces are interested, Otero (Junior) College is interested.
"I talked to the industrial park, not necessarily about the trades, but about training people who have no-collar jobs."
A no-collar job is defined, as Nieb explained, as a job that requires skills to make or reverse-engineer and fix equipment or systems for future manufacturing and living essentials.
"The other thing that we're going to look at, and this is connected to the trades and the no-collar jobs, is housing," Nieb said. "There's some things in the works right now that have been brought up. We may be eligible for a program through the Department of Local Affairs. I don't know completely so I'm not going to announce what it is because we haven't gotten it yet. Don't count your chickens before they hatch."
Nieb said urban renewal's plans for the far future aren't set in stone but that the board is considering how to address its priorities.
"The next chapter that we're looking at, and this is general because I'm just starting this, is training for a new economy," said Nieb. "That is, training people who are going to be a part of the new economy and being business savvy, having a good work ethic ... Part of it is teaching people about work ethic and what you're supposed to do. Also, some of these people might not be so interested in working because they haven't found their inspiration, and that's where entrepreneurship comes in."
Nieb wants the city to have the ability to provide consulting to entrepreneurs, investors, entertainment and arts, and working professionals in general, she said, because she wants them to have the resources to build their business the way they want to in La Junta, which will help the city both retain and create jobs.
Nieb said that if city council, urban renewal, the city at large and the community come together, they can work up an "economic revolution" that will change La Junta for the better.
"We've got to train for the new economy," Nieb said. "We also have to build downtown density, including housing downtown. We have to utilize entire buildings, not just parts of buildings, in order to get that density."
The City of La Junta and some county officials have lamented before that many older buildings downtown either are not in use or are only partially occupied.
Nieb suggested fixing that, which the city is already working on in regard to the Plaza building, others like it and the Presbyterian Church.
"Consultant after consultant after consultant says this is the way to move forward," Nieb said. "We also have to review our codes and zoning ordinances. We have an economic development action plan that we just got funded through DOLA and their Ready grant. ... We're going to collect information on all businesses and the buildings that are utilized.
"We're going to create design guidelines so we know what we can and can't do in order to retain the integrity of our downtown."
The city's website could also receive a revamp soon, Nieb said, after she's heard requests for more open communication and transparency. The intent of website's redesign would be to make it easier to navigate and thus to find whatever information a resident might be seeking.
Recovering from COVID-19
Nieb talked about Southeast Colorado Strong, or SECO Strong, and what it's doing to pull La Junta and other municipalities and businesses out of the economic crater left by COVID-19.
SECO Strong is a six-county collective between Baca, Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero and Prowers counties, as well as La Junta and Rocky Ford economic developers.
"We formed (a list full) of brainstormed regional economic activities that could help all of us in the area," Nieb said. "We are speaking as one voice to the state and federal authorities who ask us how to help us pivot out of COVID-19 and beyond."
SECO Strong meets once a week on Wednesdays to work on projects between the six counties involved.
Nieb said SECO Strong and the Southeast Small Business Development Center have close to 20 grants at play presently.
"Being able to succeed on grants depends on clear technical writing, vetted projects, capacity, proper planning, a proven need and sustainability, both physical and financial sustainability," Nieb said. "Projects that benefit more than one demographic work best and the projects or programs should not be redundant."
Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.